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MARQUETTE - When indigenous activist Evon Peter discusses the state of humanity and the environment, he tells the story of an eagle in a chicken coop.
At this week's Indigenous Earth Issues Summit at Northern Michigan University, Peter - executive director of Native Movement and the former chief of his village in Alaska, the Neetsaii Gwich'in - told the tale of a farmer who found an abandoned baby eagle.
"(The farmer) has a little coop full of chickens, and he looks in there and he's like, well, he probably has a better chance with the chickens than me," Peter said.
Years later, a Native American walked by the chicken coop, noticing the then adult eagle. The Native American tried to make the eagle fly by throwing him into the air. The eagle did not fly. The next day, he threw the eagle off a cliff, hoping the bird would fly. Instead the bird dropped like a rock, belly-up. Midway the eagle looked up and saw two eagles flying in the sky. He realized he looked just like them. So, he flipped around and used his wings to fly.
"I feel like that is not only the story of our indigenous people but of all of us people," Peter said. "We're living in an era right now in humanity where we're not living - in my understanding - how humans were meant to live on this Earth ... in the way we're relating to each other, to ourselves and the natural environment."
Peter grew up in a village in Northeast Alaska called Vashraii K'oo, where he hauled water from a creek, cut wood for cooking and heating, and hunted and fished for food. He described his culture as welcoming and humble.
"Our culture was defined by how much you give," he said, adding that people would frequently host a potlatch - a ceremony to trade gifts.
Over the years, Peter said his land was exploited of its resources by people hungry for gold, copper, oil and other fossil fuels.
Witnessing the effects of some of those industrial explorations and other human impacts, Peter talked about the water table dropping in lakes, the tundra drying up, which created forest fires, and the glaciers melting, endangering the habitat of polar bears.
"The driving force in our economy is still greed," he said.
Peter offered three solutions to make life on Earth more sustainable for humans.
"Healing is needed on an internal level," he said. "What is it that we're called to do?"
Second, he said humans need to implement what they know in terms of sustainability. As an example, he explained that at his home in Arizona he uses wind and solar energy, keeps chickens and plants vegetables.
"It actually doesn't take that much to make those transitions on a personal level," he said.
Third, he listed institutional change, meaning educating and engaging other communities.
"Without internal transformation, healing, raising awareness and practice, we're not going to see that reflection of health and sustainability in the world around us," he said. "We'll have to ease up on this luxury of living."